Sunday, 29 July 2012

23. I have a rainbowmaker

I have a rainbowmaker in the window of my flat. It's a tiny solar-powered machine which sticks to my window with a sucker cup. When the sun is shining, the motor rotates a crystal to make dots of light and tiny rainbows fly around my living room. Its case is plastic and the motor has seven wheels; each one is a different colour and a different size, from the tiny violet wheel to the biggest red one.

Rammstein is fascinated by the flying dots. He chases them around the floor and pounces on them, his tail standing straight up with excitement.

He's doing this now as the afternoon sun slants in through the window. I am lying on the sofa with my feet in Gin's lap. She is painting my toenails emerald green. We have cups of milky tea in white china mugs. My laptop is quietly playing Soft Cell.

Last night Gin got drunk and called Jason and left him a long rambling voicemail begging him to take her back. She regrets this today.

"The worst thing is that he'll love it," she says. "He will absolutely love it when he listens to that voicemail. He'll go out and he'll tell all his friends. I've gratified him."

I drink some of my tea. Gin's fingers are warm on each side of my big toe.

"And it won't make him take me back. All I've done is given him all the power. Now he knows how much I want him back, he knows he's in charge and he can do what he wants with me."

Her voice is bitter. Her eyes are filling with tears and I worry she's going to cry on my freshly painted toenails and then I feel like a bad person because a breakup is more important than nail varnish.

"Do you really want him back?" I ask. "With the cheating and the lying and the casual racism and all of it? I mean, were you happy with him?"

"Sometimes," she says.

She thinks about it.

"I can't stop thinking about him. He had this friend, Melanie. And this 'friend', " - the level of sarcasm Gin puts into the word "friend" is enough to strip the varnish off my pine table - "I knew what she was after. I knew she liked him. She's probably in bed with him right now."

Good luck to her, I think.

(I have severe doubts about Jason's ability to perform. There's a lot about his attitude to life which reminds me of one of my exes, Rob. One night I couldn't come, mostly because Rob thought the way to please a woman was to attempt to click her clit as if it was a computer mouse. Any suggestion of a different approach, however diplomatic, made him say: "But girls like this!"

I said: "I'm sorry, it's not you, my body just isn't behaving tonight," and Rob said: "I know it's not me. I'm doing everything right." After that I just couldn't carry on with him. While I have never slept with Jason I cannot help but imagine he has the same attitude. And probably the same technique.)

"I can't stand it," Gin says. "I can't stop thinking about it. It makes my whole body jealous, it makes me want to throw up."

I swing my legs sideways off the sofa and we hug for a long time. Gin has finished my nails, so now it's my turn to paint hers. She has chosen a brilliant sunflower yellow.

She puts her feet in my lap. She has beautiful feet, long and lean, with high arches. I carefully run the brush over the nail of her left big toe.

I decide to change the subject.

"There's been another murder," I say.

Gin looks up.

"What murders?" she says.

"You know, that guy who's been killing the prostitutes. They found another one not too far from here. In that little park off Wellington Street. It was on the news."

I remember the line of sad photos. Four women so far, some pretty, some not so pretty. One wary-eyed girl, her mouth pressed into a thin line, who couldn't have been more than 20. It's beyond me why prostitution isn't legal. People are always going to do it anyway, it will never be stamped out, so you may as well make it safe for them.

"Oh, is that what it was?" says Gin. "I saw the police tape when I was walking over. They had one of those white tents up."

She fiddles with her phone.

"Do you think I should text him and tell him it was a mistake?"

"No," I say. "I think you shouldn't get in touch with him again."

Sunday, 22 July 2012

22. In a cloud of baking and Cath Kidston print

"So what did you talk about?" Gin asks.

"Yes," said Amanda, "now you've finally had a conversation with this man, what's he actually like?"

This is a good question.

I drink my Cosmopolitan and stare at them. Gin's brown eyes and Amanda's blue are fixed on my face. Gin looks excited, Amanda faintly amused. They've both heard me talk about men before. They both know it's unlikely to come to anything.

Gin is a romantic. She is still hopeful that one day I'll meet the right man and we'll fall in love at first sight and live happily ever after in a cloud of baking and Cath Kidston print.

Amanda understands me too well for that.

"I don't like this cocktail," I say, eventually. "It tastes like not much."

"I don't really like it either," says Gin.

There is still half a litre jug of Cosmopolitan left. Amanda acquires the jug, and a long straw to stick in it. Gin and I order margaritas.

"You haven't answered the question," says Amanda, in between hoovering up rejected Cosmopolitan.

"He was just a guy," I say.

"What did you talk about?" asks Gin. She's wearing dominoes as earrings, the white spots replaced by sparkling red crystals. They swing as she talks.

"The usual stuff."

Amanda lifts her straw out of the jug and blows through it at me. I am covered in a fine mist, which smells of cranberry juice.

"Alice?" she says. "You're starting to irritate me."

Later, I'm alone in my flat. I am watching Kurt Russell in Big Trouble in Little China for approximately the 40th time, eating chilli Doritos, and thinking about the long conversation I had with Chris. On the screen Jack Burton is freaking out after nearly running over Lo Pan. I was nine or ten the first time I saw this film, and I thought I had never in my life seen anything so cool.

What had we talked about?

Everything. Nothing. It was the first time I had ever had a conversation with him, so it didn't move much beyond small talk.

I found out where he had moved from (Cambridge) where he was living (in a shared house in the east city, with two computer programmers and a nurse) what he thought of Martin Scorsese remaking Infernal Affairs as The Departed (he thinks Infernal Affairs was a much better film and Martin Scorsese should stick to making his own films. I think they are both superb films but so different it's nearly impossible to compare them; all they have in common is a few plot points. We have agreed to disagree)

What's impossible to describe, and the bit I left out of my description to Gin and Amanda, was the way he smiled at me during our conversation. It was a smile that somehow implied a shared secret, a conspirator's smile, infusing everything he said with a significance beyond the words.

He only stayed a couple of hours because he was meeting friends. He said "See you at work on Monday."

The doorbell rings. It's 8pm at night. I'm not expecting anyone. I'm suddenly, unreasonably terrified. I sit still, unable even to move in case whoever it is hears me. I hear feet moving outside, a rustle, and then footsteps move away.

I wait five minutes, 10, 15. I'm afraid to move. The spell is broken when Rammstein comes running into the room, jumps on to the highly polished table and skids into a turn. This is one of his favourite games and one of my major annoyances, since he marks the table and I don't like him walking all over where I eat with his dirty paws, so I throw a cushion at him and he leaps off on to one of the chairs and stares at me crossly with his ears flattened.

I stand up. I walk to the door and open it. Outside there's nothing; the white and black tiled corridor stretching off in both directions, the blank white doors of the other flats. Something falls over at my feet and I look down to see a dozen long-stemmed red roses, water seeping out of the paper. There's a card in a tiny white envelope. It's blank on both sides. Why would you include a card and then not write anything on it? For a moment this thought reactivates the fear I felt when the doorbell rang. It seems somehow weird.

Red roses; the romantic shorthand of someone without any flair, the flowers that you give to a woman because red roses are what you give to a woman. I like irises, daffodils, orchids, tulips. Primroses and snowdrops. I remember Sally's flat in springtime, a single crocus in a tiny Victorian sherry glass.

But this lack of imagination is not the fault of the roses, and I feel sorry for them. I pick them up and then think for a second. Someone has left these here. Someone who has romantic intentions, or thinks they do. Someone who has maybe got the wrong flat? I don't have a boyfriend, or anyone who would buy me roses. But I have no idea which flat would be the right one, and the roses will die in the corridor.

I take them in and arrange them in a glass jug. 

Sunday, 15 July 2012

21. Carefully buttering bits of French stick

Jena and Suzy are having a barbecue. 

They rent a small house together on the hilly north side of the city. They don't do a lot to their tiny garden; the grass is clipped but that's about it. I can still see the remnants of the carefully tended plot the former tenants created. Rose bushes grow wild in tangles, with overblown pink flowers nodding at the end of long branches. I can see mint, and lavender, and rosemary, all encroaching on each other.

I am sitting in a sun-lounger on the lawn, drinking a Corona. To my left the hill slopes sharply down behind the fence at the end of the garden, giving a view of the city spread out from horizon to horizon, untroubled, dozing in the sun. I stretch my legs out and look at them. They are almost luminously white. I don't like tanning, but I do like to feel the sun on my skin, and I'm dozing too; half-awake, half-asleep, relaxed. I don't really feel like talking, so I watch the others. The food smells good.

The barbecue has been set up on the weedy patio and Suzy's boyfriend Jake is presiding over the hamburgers, chicken wings and sausages. Suzy and Jake have been together for years, since they were at school. Jake is podgy, pale, bespectacled, with a good line in sarcasm. He wears T-shirts with computer jokes on them. He is poking a sausage with a fork and frowning at it as if he suspects it of plotting someting.

Jena is running around in a vest top and shorts. She and Suzy have spent the day making food before we all got here and for a moment I see both of them in the kitchen, cutting up lettuces and carefully buttering bits of French stick. Putting crisps in bowls and debating whether there are enough glasses. It makes me feel affectionate.

There are a lot of people here I don't know. Three men in expensive trainers are drinking beer by the barbecue. A woman with frizzy dark hair sits talking to Michelle. A handsome, dark-haired man is sitting cross-legged on the grass concentrating on playing an acoustic guitar. Two more men and a blonde woman in a faded tie-dye T-shirt are smoking weed by the back fence. Two small red-haired toddlers are tottering round on the grass. I am not entirely sure who they belong to. One comes up to me, stares at me for a while, and then hands me a half-chewed pork scratching. He looks as if he expects a response. I attempt to ignore him, but he doesn't seem to be going away.

" - Thank you," I say. I'm never entirely sure how to deal with young children. No-one I'm close to has any, and I was the youngest in my family, so my experience of them is limited. However, he seems happy with my acknowledgement. He toddles away, looking at me over his shoulder.

Jena comes and sits down on the blanket on the grass beside me. She is wearing heart-shaped pink sunglasses. Her blonde hair is nearly waist-length now.

"That guy you like is here," she says.

It takes me a moment to process what she has said and then my stomach drops sharply. In a moment of weakness, I told Jena I fancied Chris. She didn't appear to register it very much at the time, but I should have known that she would take the opportunity to try and fix me up.

"Chris, right?" she says. "I got talking to him the other day. He's just moved here, he doesn't know many people, so I said come along today. He's just showed up with some veggie burgers and six cans of Fosters."

She grins at me.

"He's single," she says. She somehow manages to make this sound filthy.

At this point, the toddler returns and silently hands me a salt cellar he has got from somewhere.

"Matthew!" Jena squawks, which makes me jump. I always forget this is an entirely innocent and rather common name. "Come here, aren't you cute - aren't you yummy -" She swoops on him with outstretched arms. He looks terrified, as well he might. At that moment Chris walks into the garden holding an open can of beer.

He is wearing blue jeans, and a fitted black t-shirt which strikes me as odd. It takes me a couple of minutes to work out that this is because it is completely plain. I can't remember the last time I saw anyone wearing a t-shirt which didn't have any distinguishing features at all, even if it was just a tiny embroidered logo. In fact, I notice, he is wearing nothing which would give anyone a cue about his personality. Men send out cues less obviously than women, but they still do it; a festival wristband here, a pierced eyebrow there, a floppy fringe, an engraved steel ring...

Nothing. Not a clue. He could be anyone, anywhere, with any intentions. 

His hair is longish, not particularly styled. The black roots have grown out even further than I remember from the last time I saw him and only about two inches of blond remains. Soon it's all going to be dark.

He looks slightly self conscious. I imagine he would be.

He sees me, smiles, and begins threading his way towards me through the people sitting down.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

20. All sitting around having ironic afternoon tea

It is a blazingly hot summer day. The sky is the deep blue you only usually see in photographs, with a few carefully placed clouds drifting here and there. Tall green trees pose as artfully as models and tanned people wander along the street with their sunglasses on their heads, sipping from cups of iced coffee. The whole thing looks distressingly like reality has morphed into a Starbucks advert.

Amanda and I have spent the morning wandering around the city centre sneering at clothes, and now we are looking for somewhere to have a cup of tea.

"What about in - ow! Don't grab my arm!"

"We can't go in here."

"Why not?"

"We can't. Keep walking."

We walk a little further.

"I demand an explanation."

"Did you see that boy behind the counter with the red curly hair?"


"One night I got drunk - "

"Oh, I think I already see where this is going - "

" - and I accidentally fucked him. And then he kept calling me and texting and saying what a nice time he had, and I never returned his calls because he was horrible and he kept calling me - "

"Wait a minute. You don't accidentally fuck someone. What do you mean, accidentally? You don't just like trip over -"

"What do you know about it?"

" - trip over and fall on his dick - "

"When was the last time you even had sex on purpose?"

" - do you? This was nothing to do with you, was it?"

Amanda is silent for a few seconds.

"He took advantage of me being a slut," she eventually remarks.

I decide to let this statement lie.

"And then he came up to me, do you remember that guy Frank I was going out with?"

"The one with the things stuck in his head?"

"That's right, the one with the recording studio. We were having a drink and that guy walks up and starts going blah blah trying to pull me and he is really posh and has a rah accent and Frank started taking the piss out of him."

"So - let me get this straight. You got drunk and shagged him; he really liked you; you never called him back; and then when he saw you in a bar and tried to talk to you, your boyfriend with inch-long spikes embedded in his forehead took the piss out of him for being posh."

"Yep. Really added insult to injury. So we can't go in there."

"No. No, I see that now."

We continue wandering down the road.

"We could go in here."

"Amanda, there's 50 million ladygirls in there, all sitting around having ironic afternoon tea or something, and I just can't handle it today. And they charge you £3 for a coffee."

("Ladygirls" is a word Amanda and I have made up to describe the current plague of middle-class professional women who think baking cakes is a lifestyle choice rather than a cheap way to make something nice to eat, snap up lovely 50s dresses we can't afford and then walk around wearing them with no style, listen to indie bands they have been told are edgy by the Guardian and call each other things like "gorgeous lady")

We move on.

I am thinking about something. Eventually I say:

"That's the difference between you and me - you meet a man you fancy and you go off and have wild adventures, lick champagne off each other, take class A drugs, have multiple orgasms and then never speak to each other again. I meet a man I like, and we stand about looking awkwardly at our shoes and nothing happens because I'm too shy, or he's not interested, or because it just somehow - doesn't happen - and then we say "bye" in an affectedly casual way and never speak to each other again."

"So what you are saying is that both of us have a trail of men we found attractive, who we failed to form relationships with, and are now no longer speaking to. It's for slightly different reasons, true, but the outcome's the same - romantically speaking, we're both non-starters. Darwin would write us off."

"At least you actually get some romance."

"There was nothing romantic about that man. I meant "romantic" to differentiate a type of encounter."

"At least you actually get some sex."

"It may surprise you to learn this, Alice, but there is some sex that I would actually rather not have had - LOOK AT THAT DRESS!"

We both press up against the window of a shop in a way which - from inside - is probably reminiscent of the scene in Aliens when the facehugger you think is dead suddenly sucks up against the glass of its aquarium.

The dress is, indeed, beautiful. It's cream, with elbow length sleeves and thin pink stripes running vertically. In this era of frills, florals and little-girl bows, there is not an ounce of fuss about it. It is pure tailored class. It is a dress to be reckoned with, a dress which would silence rooms on the right woman. Who is, obviously, either me or Amanda.

It is £135.

"A ladygirl will own that by tomorrow," says Amanda sadly.

"And she'll wear it with a granny cardigan and brogues," I say. "To dress it down."

We silently mourn.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

19. She looks at you as though you are mad

Rammstein is sitting on the red tasselled cushion at the end of the sofa, thoroughly licking his bum. He has one ginger leg stuck straight out. He is clearly enjoying this activity, to a level I feel is quite unnecessary.

The Ladykillers is on TV, although I'm not really watching it. I am listening to Gin, who is crying down the phone. Jason has dumped her, for reasons he did not make altogether clear.

Personally I feel they probably involve both his general crapness and his inability to exist in a mixed-race relationship. Gin was born here, but her family are originally from Jamaica. Jason had a number of problems with this, which he regularly articulated by teasing her about the texture of her hair or by calling her his personal slave.

(He once, when drunk, told me that he didn't want to have children with Gin because he didn't think it was right to make mixed-race babies. "It's not fair on them," he told me seriously, his eyes fixed on mine. "They don't know where they belong." This pissed me off. While it may be true that mixed race people suffer some existential angst about who they are, I think in most cases they would probably still rather have been born than not. Also, existential angst is not exclusive to mixed race people. I have plenty and I'm the product of one race only)

"I don't know what I'm going to do without him," Gin sobs. "I love him."

It's difficult to see someone you care for in this kind of situation. Gin was the one he was making jokes about, not me, and she was able to put that to one side and remain in the relationship. His comments offended me, but Gin brushed them off as unimportant. You say: "I don't think your boyfriend should say that to you," and she looks at you as though you are mad and says: "What?" You repeat it, but by then it sounds mad to you and you wonder if you're being overly politically correct and after all, if it doesn't bother her, what right have you got to be upset?

Gin is, apparently, wandering down a street somewhere in the middle of town clutching the bin bag Jason had thoughtfully stuffed all her possessions in before she arrived at his flat. It hurts me to hear her sobbing so hard. It makes my eyes water in sympathy.

How the hell can she love Jason? I've rarely met anyone so unlovable. But that's not the point; the point is that she does, and I am one of her best friends. Nothing like having your plans for the day derailed. Gin thought she was getting Sunday lunch and a shag, I thought I was getting an afternoon lying on the sofa with Rammstein, drinking coffee and watching Alec Guinness slowly unravelling in a 1950s boarding house.

"Where are you?" I say.

Half an hour later, I am sitting opposite Gin in a large Wetherspoon's near the shopping mall. She is relatively calm at the moment. She is drinking a white wine spritzer and plays with the black straw, not meeting my eyes.

I can tell she's dressed up for Jason today; she's wearing a short, floaty lime-green dress, diamante stud earrings and high heels. Her toenails are painted red. Her makeup is halfway down her cheeks. She's dropped the bin bag carelessly beside her chair. Inside it I can see a shoe, a MAC single eyeshadow (peach) and a pair of cream lace knickers.